Sweetbitter

My word of the week is sweetbitter*– not really a word, but it should be (like these non-words and these). More apt than bittersweet, “sweetbitter” places the joyful before the sorrow.

We are in Pennsylvania for a yartzheit, a year since my father-in-law died. How can it be a year already since the world stopped, a harbinger of the whole world stopping as if in sympathy? Come Wednesday, we will go to the cemetery and face head-on the abject missing of someone so loved, so central. Come Wednesday, there will be the output of tears, reckoning with what was lost.

But before that there is snow (a thrilling gift to California boys who have been watching the weather reports and praying for this for weeks). There are borrowed sleds and a hill. There are snowballs and dogs romping. There is the ridiculous cake Aunt Jessica created — sweet with some bitter chocolate — to celebrate two January birthdays weeks gone by, because life is for celebrating even belatedly.

We are here, we are together, and we are missing. An exquisite yearning.

Death always takes us by surprise. We are never ready. We bury our heads in living. But would you want it any other way? To be asking each morning, will this be the day? We live and play and we mourn and grieve.

To be clear, it matters that a year has gone by. We have passed through every season, every birthday, every holiday without him. Each painful. “Just wait,” Jessica warned Christopher on her birthday, the first without their father. In the first days and weeks and months, the bitter won out often.

Now, out in the snow, Christopher wears his dad’s jacket and pelts the boys with fists of powder, and runs away from their response. His sister and mom see the familiar jacket and think his father is here.

In the living, in his grandsons, in the dogs galloping over to join them, he is.

Peter Heisen & Bumper, 2011

P.S. Full disclosure. I threw some snowballs, too.

* I am not the first to crave a word more sweet than bitter. “Sweetbitter” has been used by poets and podcasts and authors before me, to whom I offer thanks and credit.

Comfort

Close your eyes and let the sound float around your mind. Comfort.

The word itself feels like something. Like the softest sweatpants you have been living in for months, and the fuzzy socks that keep the hard floor and the cool morning air at a cushioned distance. The couch you sink into after dinner with your belly full, blanket pulled over your knees, the sleepy dog coming to nestle against your hip, its head on your lap, your fingers combing fur. Comfort, as a thing, is tactile.

But the action, to comfort, is harder. How to give comfort? How to heal a dear one’s wounds?

When my father-in-law died almost one year ago, we were inexperienced in loss. I tried to drip words like a salve over my husband’s grief, but grief is a place too deep for words to reach. “Tell your wife you need a lot of hugs,” the grief counselor said. The act of comforting is tactile, too.

I have read that it takes 20 seconds for a hug to release oxytocin.

Yesterday my friend held a funeral for her father, and we gathered online to comfort her, to offer the solace of our virtual presence. We could not comfort with our touch, only our faces and the awareness that we were present. But we are adaptive, we humans, and I think over the past year of virtual connection we have learned to imagine that last comforting mile, to bridge the gap between screen and actual togetherness. To feel the effect of connection.

During the virtual funeral, the rabbi read a poem, “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. Maybe you’ve heard it too, this year? The moment came when the rabbi recited these lines,

And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

and I leaned against my husband and took his hand, knowing how deeply he wished he could hug his father.

Hugs may be hard to come by in these days of isolation, but there is some comfort to be found in other places: in the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, much richer than a text. In sorting through old photographs that spur buried memories of your babies’ smiles, a trip with friends, a dance floor moment resurrected. There is some comfort to be be found in playing the song that reminds you of your first kiss, or in cooking the meal your loved one loved best.

There is some comfort to be found in sitting quietly, intentionally, and recalling the of sensation of loving and being loved. In knowing that, although we cannot touch their love, we can feel it.

May we find the comfort we need, and be the comfort for others.

___

The complete poem is lovely, so I’ll share it here.

Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

Save One Life, Save the World?

The world needs — has always needed — everyday heroes, every kind act and impulse each of us can offer.

So I am excited to be moderating a panel discussion calledSave One Life, Save the World? on October 23, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Palisades Reads, a new annual community literary event whose mission is to foster connection, spark conversation, and celebrate books for their ability to build empathy. The panel relates to the themes in my novel, Shelter Us (Indiebound, Amazon, library), the story of a grieving mother who finds solace helping a young homeless mother regain her stability. In the words of one reviewer, the novel asks readers to consider, “How far would you go to help a stranger in need?” 

What compels ordinary people to step outside their comfort zone to help others? The panelists are not superheroes, but regular folks whose hearts led them to take steps, then more steps, leading to the founding of agencies that help homeless youth, that innovate how to connect homeless individuals to services, and that provide counsel and community to grieving families.

These everyday heroes are living proof of Alicia Keys‘ words: “What people often assume is that in order to make change a reality, you have to have some kind of superhuman quality and power inside of you. You don’t have to be a politician, or a scholar or a singer or a celebrity to recognize a problem and work towards fixing it by empowering others around you to take up the fight. You have to be you and that makes it all the more valiant.

To honor everyday heroes, in a countdown to the panel I will be sharing stories about people who are making the world better with small and large acts of kindness. I hope their stories will send ripples of inspiration, to tell anyone who wonders if they can make a difference: Yes, you can. And yes, you must, for no one else can bring forth your unique gifts. It’s all hands on deck.

To start, today I’m sharing this op-ed and this AirTalk interview with author/actress Annabelle Gurwitch, in which she describes her experience welcoming a homeless couple into her home through a pilot project with Safe Place for Youth (one of the participants in the Palisades Reads panel Oct 23, 6:30 p.m.) 

Let’s send ripples of kindness out into the world. Please share this post, and leave a comment about who inspires you, or how you help others. Our world need every single small act of big-heartedness it can get.

And please join me if you can for an inspiring, motivating, heart-lifting evening:

“Save One Life, Save the World” Panel, October 23, 2019, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m.

Pacific Palisades Branch Library, 861 Alma Real Drive, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272

With love,

Laura

#saveonelifesavetheworld  #everydayheroes

#kindnessmatters

 

We Always Root for Overtime

The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying.

He says, “I don’t know why I haven’t really cried since the first night,” the first night being Sunday, October 22, when he walked into my bedroom to say he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about Grandma Lilli, his great-grandmother. We had been with her earlier that day, and we knew she was on the threshold of death. He did not yet know that I had just been on the phone with my sister Marni, who had told me that she was now gone.

When I told him, he cried out and crumpled onto my bed. I put down my journal and pen (once again Lilli was acting as my muse), and we talked about life, and about death, this experience bringing mortality to his mind.

“I can’t believe I’m already 16,” he said. “It goes so fast.”

I know, I said. I told him that when I felt panicky like that, I ran through the chapters of my life – way back to pre-school, then little kid, pre-teen, high school…and on and on. “So many chapters and each so full… all before I even met Daddy!” We did the same for him. I wanted him to feel how much a life could hold, even one just 16 years long.

We turn onto Topanga, the temperature deceptively, temporarily cool, the day’s promised heat still to come. “There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” I tell him. I am telling myself, too.

My sorrow has been less intense than I expected it would be. I wonder aloud about the reasons for that: Gratitude for her long life, I think, and for its quality. Her recipe: show up with joy and enthusiasm; believe you can do anything; see miracles everywhere; laugh a lot, and love unabashedly, and loudly. One tiny example of “love unabashedly, and loudly”: Every time I called her, and said, “Hi, Grandma, it’s Laura,” I’d receive an effusive, “LAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRAAAAAAAA!” in response, as if nothing better could have happened in the world at that moment than a phone call from me. (And I know she had the same, authentic response when any of her family called.)

“You reap what you sow,” I explained to a friend who marveled at our family’s devotion to Lilli when she learned that my sister, my cousin, and I each gladly spent a night in the hospital with her a couple months ago. Lilli planted the seeds of our devotion with her own.

So I tell Aaron, a basketball player, my theory about why my sorrow is tempered: “We left it all on the court with her.” The showing up with love for birthdays, graduations, his basketball and baseball games, his brother’s MMA classes, his cousins’ plays and dances; the enjoyment; the I love you’s. We left little room for regret, and maybe regret is where sorrow lives.

Aaron is quiet, then adds his own sports-related observation. “I think Papa loves overtime and extra innings so much because it’s like a little bit of immortality.” My heart catches, thinking about my father, my son, their relationship as close as mine with my grandmother. My dad has much in common with his mother Lilli — the showing up, the love for his family, his youthful exuberance, his dogged pursuit of his favorite pasttime (for her dancing, for him football), long past the time many of his peers have set theirs aside. He always roots for overtime. More important than the outcome, even, is the chance for more of what he loves.

“I feel like all the time I had with her, my whole lifetime, was her overtime.” I think of my husband, whose own beloved, incredible grandmothers died, respectively, twenty years, and more than thirty years ago, way too soon, so much time left on the clock.

Oh my child, yes. With intense, outrageous, cheer-at-the-top-of-my-lungs gratitude for the miracle of Lilli Diamond’s overtime. All the while knowing with a touch of melancholy, that even overtime comes to its bittersweet end.

 

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How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura